When I heard the title The Substitute for tonight’s episode, I figured it would be something epic - some grand revelation about how John Locke was always meant to lead the Others but how Ben wound up on the Island first and took his place out of convenience, something like that. One could argue that “substitute” could refer to this elusive candidate, in which case it still is pretty packed with mythological meaning. (I also can’t help wondering if Jacob was so preoccupied with finding a replacement, does that mean he wanted out as badly as his nemesis did?) But this was primarily a John episode, so let’s deal with him, and the simple delight of finding out how the word “substitute” fits into his life.
John is a substitute teacher. Really, how perfect is that? All throughout season one, before he got too distracted by the hatch, John mentored just about everybody he interacted with. If he can just let his ego get out of the way, he’s a born teacher. And I love that Rose was the one who finally managed to tell John what he couldn’t do - and have him listen. What I think we’re going to see is that Rose is the one castaway who hasn’t changed at all, because she was right where she needed to be all along. The only thing different is her lack of jitters on the plane, so one might say her sense of acceptance has, if anything, deepened in this timeline. But basically, I think Rose was pretty much perfect all along.
Pretty much perfect describes the sideways world in this episode so well that I’m almost certain that we’re seeing the end of their character arcs play out as the season goes along. Flash-sideways = flash-forward that happens to take place in the past. Somehow, what happens on the Island leads to this reality, where the lessons learned from the grueling but rewarding Island experience are embedded in the castaways’ consciousnesses. (Remember how season five began at the ending, showing us a scene from The Variable and leading us toward that point for most of the rest of the season? I think there’s an element of that at work here.) So even though he doesn’t end up on the Island, John gets his happy ending. And who knows? If he decides to consult Jack, he might just end up taking that walkabout after all.
I also think that the substitute could be a reference to his father, though that revelation would be yet to come. When Helen mentioned him, my dad voiced my own thoughts: “Why in the world would he want to invite him?” My guess? Not Anthony Cooper. I’m not sure if John got into the wheelchair the same way. I’m thinking probably not. I’m also thinking that the father Helen refers to is an adoptive father, a “substitute”, if you will. That instead of being bounced around the foster care system throughout his childhood, John was chosen. Perhaps his father might turn out to be someone we already know - Richard, perhaps, looking downright elderly, or even Jacob. Though it’s hard to imagine either of them in such a down-to-earth role now.
In sideways world, John is still a broken man. He’s still stubborn, and sometimes angry. And his faith is weak. But he is open to change, and the more castaways he interacts with, the more steps he takes toward wholeness. Helping him along the way is Helen, who believes in miracles and believes in him. Lots of familiar faces tonight. Randy is still a twerp, but he somehow seems more competent than before. The phony psychic David Reyes paid off now has a much more respectable job. And Hurley… I was a little worried at first that Big Honkin’ SUV was a symptom of Obnoxious Corporate Hurley, but good luck doesn’t seem to have tainted him. He’s still the same sweet soul, and his encouragement really helped John in his road to acceptance.
And Ben. Oh, Ben. Uppity. Erudite. Office annoyance of the Dwight Schrute variety. (On a side note, considering how two of his rare genuinely happy moments occurred on a swing set, it's sweet to see him working someplace that probably has one.) And a true kindred spirit for John (who shares his taste in tea with another bald leader, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise). At last that spark of kinship can blossom into deep mutual respect, a friendship uncomplicated by power struggles. Just as Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson are so perfectly matched together, a step above each of the other exceptionally talented actors in the cast in terms of their abilities, so, too, are John and Ben bosom buddies waiting to bloom. We saw foreshadowing in Ben’s eulogy. Short. Sincere. Contrite. Surprisingly forthright. It was so touching, so tragic and yet so funny at the same time, for him to just blurt out his confession like that, and especially for nobody to even question him about it. But then to be followed by Frank’s coarse assessment that this was the weirdest funeral he’d ever been to… I think that one had me laughing all the way through the next commercial break.
This was a surprisingly funny episode. John’s are usually so heavy, but everything in his storyline just felt so refreshing, starting with the cascade of calamities that leaves him stranded on his lawn and laughing over the absurdity as the sprinklers drench him. The smile spread across his face for a different reason, but I got the same sense of rejuvenation as I did when I watched him turn his face to the rainstorm back on the beach shortly after the crash, when all of the other survivors were running for cover. And despite the apparently terrifying stakes, I chortled when Pseudo-Locke bellowed, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Maybe there's a little Real John embedded in that skin.
Now, that part of the storyline was much darker. I was impressed with Sawyer for realizing almost immediately that he was dealing with some sort of impostor because this was a man without fear. Astute observation. Very misleading previews this week; Richard seemed to be talking to Sun when he was actually talking to Sawyer, and Pseudo-Locke seemed to be talking to Sawyer when he was actually talking to Richard. And Sawyer didn’t plummet to his death. Thank goodness!
Did anyone else get a Harry Potter vibe from the cave scene? I kept finding myself thinking of Harry and Dumbledore’s journey to the cave - or perhaps Kreacher and Voldemort. Because it seems that Sawyer is about to be used in a big way. Or that's the intention, anyway, though House Elves have magic of which Voldemort can't conceive, and Sawyer has more smarts and heart than Smokey can imagine. I didn’t find the cave itself all that scary, but the trip there certainly was arduous. The revelation that each “candidate” corresponds to one of the Numbers is odd; how does Jacob decide who gets what number? How does he decide that someone isn’t a candidate after all (or are they just crossed off when they die)? Pseudo-Locke’s dark “inside joke” made by tossing the white stone on the scale into the ocean seems to indicate that Smokey now reigns supreme. Dark times on the Island indeed.
Certainly dark times for Richard. Very strange to see him as flustered as Faraday, as hysterical as Claire. The manic panic of his whispered conversation with Sawyer was so unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him. I hope he makes it to the Temple on time. I had to chuckle as I cheered at his defiance in his first scene, since all I could think was Luke Skywalker snarling, “I’ll never join you!” But boy, Richard is seeming more and more clueless all the time. He does know how dangerous Pseudo-Locke is. But for a guy who once seemed omniscient, he seems to have been left out of the cc on some very important memos.
Why does Ilana know more than he does? Ilana, from whom we saw genuine grief today. Ilana, who still doesn’t realize that Ben is the one who killed Jacob but does know who Jin is and where he must be. Who was in a hurry but was respectful enough to agree when Sun suggested John get a proper burial and, not knowing John herself, coaxed a eulogy out of someone who did. And may I just say that the funeral music was one of the most gorgeous Life and Death variations yet. I also found myself swept away by the beauty of the score in the John and Helen Discuss Miracles scene.
That still leaves Phantom Boy, and I really don’t know what to say about him, except that he looked very much like a pint-sized version of Jacob, and everything he said and did seemed to be what Jacob would say and do. Could he maybe be Aaron, doing some kind of freaky astral projection thing like Walt? Is this some manifestation of Jacob, or is it yet another level in the hierarchy, someone to whom both Jacob and his nemesis answer? I’m not sure. And it makes me very sad to think that the show might end with the Island underwater, submerged, no longer needed. And what happens to Jacob and Smokey then? Do they blink out of existence? Or is it up to the castaways to recognize them by other names, a la Lucy at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, back in the real world? The Island is, perhaps, a metaphor for the show itself, and the writers have ingeniously found a way to ease us back into the real world along with the castaways, to bring us all to a place where we can apply the lessons from the Island to our own lives. May they be worthy lessons indeed, and may we be open to them.